Doomed ships sail into an icy mystery
Even the might of Victorian Britain was not enough to beat the Arctic
Franklin’s Lost Expedition 9.35pm, ABC1
JOHN Franklin’s ill- fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid- 19th century remains one of the great mysteries.
Although fragments of the story have emerged through the years, no one has yet pieced together the whole narrative of what happened to the former Tasmanian governor and his two purpose- built ships. His disappearance during his fourth expedition to find the fabled Arctic passage to Asia caused a furore in Victorian England and sparked what is still considered one of the most expensive rescue expeditions in modern history.
Franklin set out in May 1845 with 134 sailors and officers in the Terror and Erebus to thread his way through the maze of ice and islands north of Canada. His determination was underscored by the fact he had five years’ worth of food, including 8000 tins sealed using a new method.
The ships were equipped not only with sails but with steam engines and propellers, and the bows had been reinforced with iron to break through the ice. But even the might and hubris of Victorian Britain was not enough to beat the Arctic elements.
A fragment of journal found in a cairn indicated Franklin died two years into the expedition, although some of his men survived much longer. Reports from Inuit people suggested the ships were stranded, and subsequently sank, off the barren coast of King William Island.
The Inuit also reported finding mutilated bodies that they believed were linked to cannibalism, a report that caused even more consternation in Victorian Britain, and said they had seen about 40 men dragging sleds.
Using a mix of historical narrative and interviews with modern scientists, this absorbing documentary looks at various theories about what happened to the expedition and subsequent attempts to solve the riddle.
The exhumation of the three crew buried in graves and examination of the remarkably preserved bodies showed each contained high levels of lead, leading to one theory that solder in the cans poisoned the crew. Another is that some of the early deaths were as result of botulism.
Either way, the ships have never been found, nor has Franklin’s grave or log. What seems certain is that the explorer, working with little or no knowledge of the coast, took a tragically wrong turn and found himself in an area where ice aggregated as it was pushed down by the wind from the Arctic.
Once trapped, the men’s fate was sealed, despite the valiant attempt by some to escape overland. The mystery remains but, surprisingly, people are still out there searching. As one scientist notes at the end of the documentary, there is always the tantalising possibility that a box buried somewhere beneath the ice contains a journal with the missing pieces to this 160- year- old puzzle.
Crushed dream: A scene from Franklin’s Lost Expedition